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Iran’s Language War against the Kurdistan Region چاپ ارسال به دوست
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Iran's Language War against the Kurdistan Region

amir_sharifi.jpgBy: Dr. Amir Sharifi

23 May 2014

Until recently the Islamic Republic pretended it was getting along with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and not intervening in its affairs. Rudaw recently reported that the KRG Department of Foreign Affairs had summoned the Iranian acting consul in Erbil to protest and condemn a condescending statement that had appeared on the consular website, in which  the Kurdish language had been proclaimed to be a " dialect of Persian," and Iran was described as the ancestral  "motherland" of Kurds. I must commend KRG officials for repudiating this outright breach of diplomatic protocol.

I should hasten to add that, anywhere else, such a diplomatic breach would be cause for expulsion. The central question is why the Islamic Republic is so blatantly and perniciously reviving a moribund myth against the official status of Kurdish in Iraq?

The answer to this question has to do with both politics of language and language of politics.

The contemptuous declaration is meant to:

(1) intimidate the KRG to compromise with and not collide with the Islamic Republic's  ideological brethren in Baghdad;

(2) to bolster the position of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in confrontation with the KRG; 

(3) to oppose any political ambition and intention on behalf of the KRG to assert Kurdish political autonomy and independence by threatening to annex it to the presumed historical  "motherland";

(4) to express open hostility to the recognition of Kurdish as an official language in Iraq;

(5) to express  alarm and opposition to the emergence of civil and secular trends in the recent Iraqi elections;

(6) to challenge the burgeoning democracy  that is contributing to the revival of the Kurdish language and the growing insistence of Kurds in Iran to connect with the achievements made by their fellow Kurds in the autonomous region in areas of educational opportunity, ethnic pride and official status of their native language.

Although the answer to these questions is complex and multilayered, the last one perhaps alarms and worries the Islamic Republic more.

Linguistic repression is endemic in Iran. One revealing example is a directive issued in 2013. The coercive directive (see footnote) cannot be construed as an aberration but a persistent restrictive language policy designed and implemented to obliterate the Kurdish ethno-linguistic identity. A cursive survey of the text of the directive will reveal the ways in which Kurdish as a native language is subordinated and Persian exalted. The directive upholds Persian as a benchmark, linguistically framed as "the language of standards" or the standard language, in need of "reinforcing" its lexical repertoire or   "treasury." It is claimed that the highly valued official language and its purism (Persian) is now being threatened with the corrupting effect of "local dialects." The directive goes on to reserve special rights for "non-native students" (Farsi speakers) as it warns against the negative educational implications of using (local dialects) as the language of instruction and communication in the subsequent stages of education."

This is a contemptuous and threatening call for Draconian linguistic and cultural repression. The directive, unlike the one issued recently in Erbil, had been issued in the context of an institutionalized monolingual language policy that has been in force  for over a century in Iran, an assimilationist policy that has had devastating and ruinous educational consequences for all language minorities in Iran.

 A study conducted by Sarafi on the effects of these restrictions in the representations of ethnic minorities in institutions of higher education offers glaring disparities between native Farsi speakers and non-Farsi speakers. While 58 percent of Farsi speakers receive an academic degree from universities, only 48 percent non-native Farsi speakers do so. With respect to undergraduate enrollment, Farsi speakers constitute 46 percent of the total population of students, while non-Farsi speakers are only 36 percent. Postgraduate levels show even greater disparity, 88 percent as contrasted with 12 percent, and in PhD programs surveyed, the data found  90 percent of graduate students and recipients  to be native Farsi speakers and only  10 percent were  non-native speakers of Farsi.

The current proclamation issued in Erbil is symptomatic of a recurrent and similar colonialist attitude, based on regressive and homogenizing language policies. The officials of the Islamic Republic have for long been worried about the cultural influence of the KRG and the role it is symbolically playing in reshaping regional geo-politics and cultural landscape. With great political uncertainty, Iran is now witnessing the growing influence of a burgeoning democracy that threatens to redefine and reinforce the Kurdish national psyche in Iran, thus heightening "national anxiety" for the Iranian government.

These examples testify to the deep-seated prejudice and aggression of the Islamic Republic against the Kurdish language and ethnicity, both in Iran and Iraq. We cannot be oblivious to this overt distortion of historical and linguistic facts and lack of respect. This flagrant violation of international law should be brought to the attention of the International community and human rights groups who might be able to find legal provisions against such hostility, interventions, intolerance and linguistic distortions.

 Persian intellectuals, linguists and human rights activists and advocates cannot gloss over the injustices perpetrated in their name. For Kurds there is a bitter historical irony as they do have a linguistic affinity with Persian. But the real irony is that Kurds since the time of the Safavids have been the targets of ruthless decimation and linguistic repression, and forced assimilation   into the dominant society in Iran. As for Kurds in the north of Iraq, although there is now a more liberal language policy and Kurdish has acquired official status with Arabic, Kurdish language rights are still vulnerable and fragile. The Islamic Republic's current language war is nothing but a smokescreen against the cultural revival of Kurdish ethno-linguistic identity in Iran and newly acquired linguistic rights in the autonomous region of Southern Kurdistan.

Dr. Amir Sharifi is president of the Kurdish American Education Society-Los Angeles


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